The Impossible "Over There"

Tom Friedman has seen the truth, and it is good:
After spending a week traveling the frontline of the “war on terrorism” — from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan in the seas off Iran, to northern Iraq, to Afghanistan and into northwest Pakistan — I can comfortably report the following: The bad guys are losing.
Take a moment and notice his spatial logic: The "war on terrorism" has a "frontline" (granted, Friedman's front is not our grandfather's front - it could not be so, curled as it is over a map of the world), and that front demarcates the "good guys" from the "bad", which suggests that the two spaces ("good" and "bad" mapped onto a physical territory) are distinct and meet at this "frontline" from which Friedman has just returned. My quarrel isn't so much with the substance of Friedman's article - in spite of his attempt to discover "a vision of Islam that is perceived as authentic yet embracing of modernity" - as with that logic that cleanly divides the good guys from the bad.

Consider, as a different rhetorical exercise, Slavoj Žižek's attempt to link Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Silvio Berlusconi. He asks:
Is there a link between Ahmadinejad and Berlusconi? Isn’t it preposterous even to compare Ahmadinejad with a democratically elected Western leader? Unfortunately, it isn’t: the two are part of the same global process. If there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now, Peter Sloterdijk once remarked, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a ‘capitalism with Asian values’. The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as the model that all of China should follow. Until now, capitalism has always seemed to be inextricably linked with democracy; it’s true there were, from time to time, episodes of direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (in South Korea, for example, or Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.
He continues:
This doesn’t mean, needless to say, that we should renounce democracy in favour of capitalist progress, but that we should confront the limitations of parliamentary representative democracy. The American journalist Walter Lippmann coined the term ‘manufacturing consent’, later made famous by Chomsky, but Lippmann intended it in a positive way. Like Plato, he saw the public as a great beast or a bewildered herd, floundering in the ‘chaos of local opinions’. The herd, he wrote in Public Opinion (1922), must be governed by ‘a specialised class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality’: an elite class acting to circumvent the primary defect of democracy, which is its inability to bring about the ideal of the ‘omni-competent citizen’. There is no mystery in what Lippmann was saying, it is manifestly true; the mystery is that, knowing it, we continue to play the game. We act as though we were free, not only accepting but even demanding that an invisible injunction tell us what to do and think. [emphasis added]
What's striking about Žižek's account is the way in which he refuses to bracket off Iran as an "over there". If Friedman's column today depends upon an ability to distinguish between a modernity in which we live and something not-quite-modern on the other side of the frontline, Žižek's account forces us to think about the ways in which similar projects and processes are at work at both sides (if we can even speak of sides).

And when Žižek argues that "we need to confront [again the logic of fronts] the limitations of parlimentary representative democracy", it echoes something I've been thinking about as health care reform [or its impossibility] has become the topic of the day. More on that soon.


Popular Posts